Blog 2: Public Opinion & Media Bias
In the 1920s Walter Lippman posed the argument that individuals lack the time and resources required to develop complex and reasoned responses to national/international events (Sullivan, pg. 107). He essentially argued that because we rely on news media to gather this information and provide it to us in a number of ways, public opinion is almost artificial. We are more concerned with our own lives than national/international affairs, and in turn, we consume the information the media provides us with, with little to no fight.
This describes the abilities of the media to influence the importance of topics on the public agenda. This states that news that is covered more frequently and prominently will be regarded with a higher level importance by its audience. Agenda-setting theory was developed by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw as a study on the 1968 presidential election campaign. This study found a direct correlation between the issues that voters believed were important and the issues that the media covered as “important”.
Essentially they argued that the media cannot tell us what to think, but they can tell us what to think about.
“If It doesn’t fit, you must acquit!”- The OJ Simpson example
An example of this can be seen in the O.J Simpson trials. This case morphed mass media into the way it is today. It set a sort of precedent as to how the media could sensationalize certain stories, and form public opinion on its importance. As cameras were allowed in the courtroom during trials, thousands of journalists camped out in an attempt to use this as their story. This saw mainstream media outlets such as The Washington Post, and the New York Times, fighting for space with the likes of National Enquirer.
During this trial the media were ever-present, and this was front page news for several years. Below we see how two different media outlets chose to alter O.J’s mug shot in order to create a different perception of the trial. News Week kept the mug shot mostly the same, however enlarged his prisoner ID across the bottom. Whereas Time Magazine, chose to darken the image to almost create a more sinister looking being.
OJ was a prime example of the two underlying basic assumptions that agenda setting theory follows: (1) that the press and the media do not reflect reality; they filter and shape it; and (2) media concentration on a few issues and subjects leads the public to perceive those issues as more important than other issues.
The Clump Circus – a modern day example
The media may not effectively be able to tell America who to vote for, but they can ensure that particular questions/issues are raised, or show specific interest in a particular candidate, therefore leading the discussion toward or away from issues important to them.
*Enter the Clump Circus*
This year’s campaign has been especially scandalous for both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, with especially bias results from many news outlets across the US. Throughout the presidential race, both Trump and Clinton have been shown as major news for the last few months – for some good reasons, other bad (mostly for Trump).
Whilst media outlets are supposed to generally unbiased, some of them (coughFOXNEWScough) definitely present news that seems to benefit their more..Republican stakeholders – in other words: Clinton can do very little right, and Trump is the hero we all need).
It is also interesting to note how Donald Trump has essentially set the GOP agenda. His campaign has caused so much controversy with his mixed messages that even the rest of the Republican Party are somewhat confused as to what their “brand” really is. His stance on immigration has moved the party to take a more “right-winged” stance, and a “left-winged” stance on free-trade.
As discussed by John L. Sullivan, “Framing occurs when journalists or media producers “select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation” (Sullivan, pg. 111). Throughout the election campaigns, this has been showcased depending on the media outlets. Trump has regularly said that he considers the media to be “more corrupt than Hilary” due to their portrayal of him through his racist, misogynistic, tax-dodging scandals, and the presses lack of reporting on Hilary’s WikiLeaks scandal. Media Research Center has shown that ABC, NBC and CBS spent a total of 4 hours and 13 minutes reporting on Trumps scandals between the Oct 7-13 coverage, and only 36 minutes covering Hilary. This can show that the media is spending more time promoting all issues related (to basically everything) Trump says, and framing it under a moral evaluation. The media are influencing the choices people make about how to process that information through the use of horse-race coverage. By providing continual information over who is leading the newest polls, voters become uncertain and start to follow the majority.
Agenda-setting and framing research demonstrates that media can affect public perception of political issues. Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s theory, the Spiral of Silence, states that “individuals naturally fear social isolation, and will therefore monitor the political views expressed in the media and repress their own opinions if they are in the minority” (Sullivan, pg.113). Whilst this is something that has not received much support within the US, I feel that his is likely something that has come out of the 2016 presidential election. Some of Trump’s views are considered fairly taboo for a man running for president to say, but there are likely supporters that may agree with his stances, yet tell people they are likely to vote against him.
Further research has shown evidence for bandwagon effects. This happens when individuals hear news report of opinions polls that differ from their own opinion, causing them to shift their outlook to match the majority opinion. This could be apparent for both candidates, as Trump has been portrayed as a womanizer, and Clinton has been deemed “corrupt” by different aspects of the media outlets. This was also the case with Bernie Sanders. Whilst many people were on board with his policies, he bowed out to make way for Clinton, causing many people who were against her views; to switch their opinions when he was no longer a candidate.
This election has shown that the media have their own agenda regarding the presidential candidates. The coverage of Trump has been majority negative, yet he still has fairly impressive polling numbers. Coverage of Hilary’s “scandals” has been portrayed as “less important” in the eyes of the media, though this may just be because Trump seems to put his foot in it more often than not. Either way, I’m thankful to be Canadian right now.